Tuesday 12 November 2019

Blindboy's sparkling wit dazzles at first, then loses its sheen

Short stories: Boulevard Wren and Other Stories

Blindboy Boatclub

Gill Books, hardback, 304 pages, €19.99

Modern soothsayer: Blindboy Boatclub in Dillon’s Park, Dalkey. Photo by Conor McCabe
Modern soothsayer: Blindboy Boatclub in Dillon’s Park, Dalkey. Photo by Conor McCabe
Boulevard Wren and Other Stories, by Blindboy Boatclub

Tony Clayton-Lea

Those were the days when you wouldn't trust anyone that wore a plastic bag over their head, but these are different, dangerous times, and if you can't put your faith in someone like Limerick's Blindboy Boatclub - who speaks more sense through a hole in a plastic bag than most other people do through a loudspeaker - then you might as well go to hell in a handcart and never return.

Anonymous to all but his family and friends he may be (the man's name is Dave Chambers), yet the intelligence of what he says is available to everyone, particularly via the medium of his acclaimed titular podcast.

Boulevard Wren and Other Stories is his second book of short stories and, like the debut collection (The Gospel According to Blindboy, published two years ago to a mixture of rapture and bewilderment), it is high on several genuinely inventive notions and moderate-to-low on familiar areas.

The general drift of the stories here begins with an outrageously good idea, only for it to either subsequently float into the ether, where it disappears forever, or travel up its own fundament, wherein it lodges like a haemorrhoid. When Blindboy is on form, however, he is superb. Examples of how good he is can be gleaned, in particular, from 'Letter to The Irish Times', 'Jo Lee', 'Christopher Walking' and 'The Skin Method'.

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Although much longer than any letter we have ever read in any newspaper, his hilarious Henry Root sensibilities are strong in 'Letter to The Irish Times', in which Nobel Prize winner Dr Marie Gaffney writes in response to an article about the decline of bees in Ireland. A Professor of Ornithology at University College Cork, her work, she haughtily imparts, is "focused on the distressing effects of the Cork accent on songbirds". The letter occasionally rambles, but Blindboy's own focus is taut enough not to let this drain the reader's interest.

Some cracking lines help: as a student at "the Krascoe Institute in Geneva, Switzerland", Gaffney is regularly stung by bees, a cumulative line of assault that fails to separate her from her studies ("Alas, if I am to be candid, I must admit I would… imagine smashing them under my fist… If I took their stings personally, then I would have failed as a biologist…")

Throughout the rather more serious 'Jo Lee', there is a feeling that Blindboy is torn between presenting unwarranted levels of unease and some really decent prose writing. There are shades of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and (closer to home and more recently) Sarah Davis-Goff's dystopian debut novel, Last Ones Left Alive, but he nonetheless fashions a strong, singular narrative.

Meanwhile, 'Christopher Walking' is one of those immensely clever short stories that end up in 'Best Irish Writing' anthologies: a smart twist and a jolt of a conclusion that brings to mind the likes of Daniel Woodrell or Ron Rash. Another goodie is 'The Skin Method', a daft but highly amusing speculative premise that places Irish actor Gabriel Byrne as "a folk saint who represented truth and reliability to young men in Eastern Europe".

That's the good news. Not so satisfactory is that for every taut, invigorating and whip-crack of a story, there is its opposite. 'Darn Submerged' treads such familiar ground, it has grooves in it, while 'Wind Milker' - perhaps the worst culprit here - comes across as a deliberate if not gratuitous attempt to churn the stomach.

The title story, also, is prone to one of Blindboy's primary flaws as a writer: poor self-editing (a faultline that should be thrown back at him to repair). Nominally a sci-fi story about the 'Slumbo' app (which allows people "to explore another person's feelings as they happen in their replayed dreams… Simply rewatch each Slumbo as much as you like, and feel the feelings again and again in the present moment…") and how it is used to devastating effect by "Deccy the dream farmer who'll auction your deepest ecstasy or pain online to the highest bidder", it channels the likes of sci-fi writers Philip K Dick and Brian Aldiss - while simultaneously blending (as Blindboy himself might admit) a substantial bang of Kevin Barry.

The end result is your genuine game of two halves. That his second short story collection, however, doesn't appear to have learned any decisive lessons (via constructive criticism) from the first is interesting. Yes, Blindboy comes up with the occasional gem of a story that is as agile as it is fortified, but there is little or no polish applied to too many others.

Yes, it's his own decision as a writer to follow his instincts, to write what he wants (and which, by default, we should and must respect) but in some stories there are no intuitive advances.

From a reader's point of view (and certainly this reader) that's a pity, because the best of this collection is probably the best you'll read from a short story writer this year.

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